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9 tips for handling grief with kids during the holiday season

Check in with yourself and your children, show yourself some care and create new traditions

(Celia Jacobs for The Washington Post)

Just before Christmas last year, the 7-year-old daughter of Michael’s patient begged her to make cookies, but she didn’t want to. The next day, the child asked again, and her mother snapped, “No! Please stop asking.” Sobbing, the girl said: “But we always have those cookies! Gran made them every year!”

The patient’s mother had died a year ago, and it was the first Christmas without her. Just as for her family, the holidays can be an especially difficult time for those grieving loved ones. Someone new carving the Thanksgiving turkey or one less Christmas stocking to hang can accentuate a loss and reintensify grief.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, associate professor at the University of Arizona, and author of “The Grieving Brain” explains, “Grief is the natural response to being aware of a loss and, during the holidays, you are going to be more aware because we carry out all the rituals we’ve always done with the people we’re close to.”

In the past years, a huge number of people have lost family members, friends and co-workers to covid-19 and other causes, including a daunting number of children who lost one or both parents or caregivers. People often ask us how to cope with grief during the holiday season and especially how to help children navigate this emotional time of year.

Here is some advice we give:

Check in with yourself: Thinking about your own needs first regarding a loss will put you in a better place to help your child.

Michael’s patient was surprised by her impatient reaction to her daughter’s request for Gran’s holiday cookies. “I felt so upset when she asked. I didn’t know I was feeling so sad still,” she said. “It’s been nearly a year since Mom died but … it’s our first Christmas without her. I guess we’re all hurting still.”

It may seem difficult to think directly about a loss, but the idea is to parse out your thoughts and feelings to do something with them — otherwise they may catch you unawares, as they did the patient.

Check in with your children: You may not know how to talk with your child about the impact of a loss on the holidays but saying nothing can leave children worrying alone. Instead, talking to your children in a truthful age-appropriate way creates connection. Ask them what they’re thinking: “The holidays are coming up. Do you have any thoughts about how you want to celebrate?” They may not offer a fully crafted plan, but their responses will likely provide insight into their feelings. Check in at different times as a holiday approaches and share any proposed activities so they can share their thoughts.

Have a plan: Creating a plan to acknowledge your loved one’s loss can give you a sense of control and allow you to organize and allocate feelings.

For one of us, this Thanksgiving will activate memories. It is the 26th since Elena’s 6-year-old daughter Liza died. The loss will be compounded by the recent death of her beloved mother-in-law. Elena and her family have a plan in place — to decorate the Thanksgiving table with daisies, her mother-in-law’s favorite flowers, and to make the chocolate chip cheesecake that Liza loved. Before they sit down to eat, they’ll toast their departed loved ones.

Other plans could be to light a candle, reminisce and share memories, watch a movie or listen to music your loved one enjoyed, or to visit their grave or place of rest.

Respect everyone’s grieving needs: It wouldn’t be the holidays if someone didn’t feel overwhelmed, excited, angry or distressed, and emotions are likely to be heightened when you are grieving. Things can get especially complicated when family members want to honor their loved ones in different ways. This occurred last Christmas to a patient, a father of two, whose wife had died. While his son wanted to set a place for their mother at Christmas dinner, his daughter didn’t want to celebrate the holiday. What to do?

First, make sure everyone’s voice is heard. Try to fulfill each person’s wishes in essence if not in the exact details. Find a compromise. Emphasize respect for each other’s needs.

With Elena’s help, her patient developed a plan. “We didn’t set a place at the table,” he said, “but my son made a special ornament and hung it on the tree, and my daughter brought toys and books to the Christmas Day celebration and hid from the rush of the holiday when she needed.”

He said, “it was terrible in parts, but it worked. For all of us. And next year, we’ll figure it out again.”

Remember that whatever you end up doing this year can be changed as needs evolve.

Create new traditions: A death can make certain rituals bittersweet, reminding us that our loved one is gone, life is fragile and change is inevitable. Consider creating a fresh tradition if old ways seem painful. One of Michael’s patients took her children camping over Hanukkah after her husband died, a new experience and one that freed them to remember their husband and dad as they wished, without the trappings of how everything used to be.

Holidays need not fit anyone else’s images of a perfect celebration. Therapist Nimali Jayasinghe says, “Normative images of large, joyous gatherings can bring on feelings of discomfort — and pressure — in those who are grieving. I’d like to see more images of people celebrating over Zoom, or in peaceful solitude, or volunteering at a community kitchen.”

Show yourself some care: Therapist Kimberly Grocher notes that many of her clients, especially women of color, “have been taught to keep pressing on, without being able to really express their grief.” She advises, “Be gentle with yourself and show some self-compassion.” Keep to routines with healthy food and enough sleep, when possible, especially for children.

Set boundaries: If you don’t have energy for the Thanksgiving parade, don’t go. Let others take the children or stay home and watch it on TV together. The holidays don’t have to be perfect.

If the holiday spirit is overwhelming, take a break. Watch non-holiday movies or get out into nature — and boost your well-being at the same time.

Be aware that a January letdown often occurs as festivities draw to a close, leaving some feeling low. Embrace the quieter mood as a time to relax, recharge and recover from the physical and emotional intensity of past weeks.

Aim for connection: The antidote for loss is togetherness — one that works for you. With planning, you can navigate the season, remembering your loved ones on your terms, and bringing their memories forward, Your conversations with your child as you handle these difficult times will bring you closer, creating moments to cherish.

Elena Lister, MD, is a therapist in New York City, and an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Michael Schwartzman, PhD, ABPP, is a therapist in New York City and school psychologist at Saint David’s School.

They are co-authors (with Lindsey Tate) of “Giving Hope: Conversations with Children About Illness, Death, and Loss.

We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.

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